When Jimmy Vesey was at a Harvard football game recently, he saw a group of people from China sitting in front of him. They were reading a book about the sport, trying to understand what was happening on the field.
That interested Vesey enough that he started a conversation with them — in Mandarin.
The Harvard sophomore has a love for the Chinese language and is nearly fluent.
“It’s amazing,’’ said his father, Jim Vesey. “I don’t know where the heck he got it from.’’
The origin of his hockey talent, though, is very easy to track.
Jim Sr., a former Bruin who grew up in Charlestown, still holds the all-time scoring record at Merrimack College and a photo of him hangs in the rink there. As much as he enjoyed his time at the school, he wanted his sons to forge their own legacies.
“Jimmy always wanted to go to Belmont Hill and he wanted to go to Harvard,’’ said Vesey. “My [younger] son, Nolan, had a lot of ambition about going to Merrimack. I kind of steered him away from that. I wanted him to go somewhere to carve his own territory. Everyone needs a different kind of path. They take hockey seriously enough, they don’t need that extra burden.’’
Nolan, who is two years younger than Jimmy, went to Austin Prep last year and is committed to Maine for next season after playing one year of junior hockey.
Jimmy said he briefly considered Merrimack but decided it wasn’t the right choice for him.
“I would’ve put pressure on myself because my dad is such a big name there,’’ said Vesey, 20. “It would’ve been kind of hard, I think, for me.’’
After spending four years at Belmont Hill from the eighth grade through the 11th, Vesey elected to leave the school and enroll at North Reading for his senior year so he could play for the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior League.
“I wanted to challenge myself in hockey and I was already committed to Harvard,’’ said Vesey. “The coaches at school told me they’d support me in whatever I did. I went to play against older kids to try to help my transition to college hockey.’’
That year, Vesey worked with the South Shore Kings’ strength coach — Brian McDonough, the owner of Edge Performance Systems — and played a lot in all situations. He was named the league’s most valuable player and offensive player of the year.
As much as he developed his hockey skills, there was one thing missing — Chinese.
“In my four years at Belmont Hill, I took Chinese all four years,’’ said Vesey. “I’m pretty good at it actually. I didn’t take it when I went back to public school because it wasn’t offered.’’
When he arrived at Harvard, he reconnected with Chinese language classes.
“I plan to take it all four years here,’’ he said. “To be really fluent, I’d have to spend a little time in China. I want to one day be fluent.’’
When asked why he selected Chinese, Vesey said he felt it was very relevant.
“I thought it was interesting,’’ he said. “With China being such a big player in the world economy today, I just wanted to go with it.’’
Last season, Vesey had 11 goals as a freshman, tied for tops on the team. But the Crimson had a rough year in part because some players were ineligible due to the academic scandal at the school.
“It was definitely a tough year for our team,’’ said Vesey, a third-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators in 2012. “We had a lot of things that we couldn’t control with guys having to leave school. I think we made the best of what we had. It was a really fun year for me. I learned a lot from the older guys on the team, they kind of showed me the ropes.’’
Coach Ted Donato, also a former Bruin, played with Vesey’s father in training camp, where they were linemates for a time. They also played against each other during high school in a fall league at UMass-Boston.
“I was very excited to see some of the positive traits his dad had as a player are very much alive in Jimmy,’’ Donato said.
Vesey said Donato has helped his growth by playing him in virtually every situation.
“Personally, I made a lot of strides in my development and I’m trying to carry that into this year and help some of the younger guys as well,’’ Vesey said. “We have a great freshman class and they are definitely going to have an impact on this team. We also have guys coming back from taking last year off and that will make us even stronger.’’
Donato said he expects Vesey to have a better year than last season when he was named Ivy League rookie of the year and was named to the ECAC All-Rookie team.
“Jimmy looks great in the preseason so far,’’ said Donato. “He was off to a great start in the first half of the year last year. He went to the World Juniors and played very well and was part of the gold medal-winning team. But it took a lot out of him as well, going to Russia. He had an injury in the second half of the season and battled that. But he looks healthy and strong. We’re expecting a very big year from Jimmy. He’s an elite goal scorer and the longer I coach, I realize how much that is a very difficult trait to try to teach. Jimmy naturally has a great knack for being around the net and scoring goals. I think he’s got a very bright future in front of him. I think he’ll be one of the top players in college hockey.’’